Modern Stoicism is a thing. It has been in the page of major newspapers (e.g., here), magazines (e.g., here), and assorted news outlets (e.g., here). Stoic Week and Stoicon are annual international events, and a number of new books about Stoicism have been published both by popularizers and scholars. There are Stoic blogs (like the one you are reading), podcasts (here is my own, in case you haven’t checked it out), and Facebook pages. Since the goal of Stoicism is to make us better people, more sensitive to injustice, and more helpful to the human cosmopolis, this is largely a good thing.
I say largely because just like in any other successful movement, it was inevitable that modern Stoicism would eventually spun a number of sub-groups, some of which are in danger of turning a good thing into something debatable, or even downright despicable. At the cost of going to be accused of gatekeeping, exclusionary attitude and so forth, I’m going to spell out my two cents about this, in the spirit of stimulating an open and frank discussion among people who genuinely care.
What’s happening to Stoicism is by all means not peculiar to it. Take Christianity, for instance. It has its “mainstream,” both Catholic and Protestant, but it also has its fundamentalism (a word that originally simply meant “a return to the fundamentals”), as well as its corruptions, like the abomination known as “prosperity gospel,” or the “muscular Christianity” anti-immigration and misogynist movement of the late 19th century.
So what is there to be concerned for modern Stoics? The first, though admittedly least problematic, stop, is “traditional Stoicism.” These are people who think that a religious belief in the divine and in providence is an inevitable component of Stoicism, without which one has simply betrayed the ancient philosophy for one’s “assumed” modern worldview. Traditional Stoics accuse the rest of us of changing things around to make the philosophy “more palatable” to modern sensitivities.
It is undeniable that the ancient Stoics frequently invoked “god” and did believe in some sort of “providence.” Nobody can read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and miss that. At the same time, it is also very clear that the ancient Stoics themselves did not see an unavoidable connection between their idea of providence and their ethical practice, as Marcus Aurelius repeats several times in the Meditations. Moreover, “the divine” for the Stoics had a very specific meaning: they were pantheists, not theists, meaning that for them god is immanent in the universe, indeed it is the universe itself, permeated by a rational principle known as the Logos. God, for the ancient Stoics, is made of matter, and has little to do with most modern conceptions of the term. Moreover, “providence” was not a Christian-type plan, but the result of the fact that the Cosmos is a living organism that does its thing (see this, chapters 5-8). We don’t understand what our part in that thing is, just like the cells of our body don’t understand what the body is doing. For the Stoics there was no afterlife, no long-term survival of the soul (which was also made of matter), and — pace the famous Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes — no god who is going to answer our prayers. In his Republic, Zeno explicitly said that there would be no temples in the ideal Stoic community,
What bothers me about traditional Stoics, however, is not their metaphysical beliefs, as much as I think they are unsustainable in the light of modern science (of course, they would say that this is simply a reflection of my “assumed” worldview). Indeed, a major reason I embraced Stoicism is precisely because I think it is compatible with a number of metaphysical positions, from pantheism (obviously) to deism, from theism to atheism. It’s a big tent, which is consistent with the Stoics’ own concept of cosmopolitanism. But traditional Stoics seem to act in an exclusionary manner, thinking of themselves as holding to The Truth, and everyone else as either wrong or, worse, moved by an agenda of political correctness. Come back to the big tent, brothers and sisters, there is a lot of space over here.
“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Meditations, XII.14)
“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)
Let me turn now to the Stoic equivalent of the prosperity gospel. No, I’m not talking about Ryan Holiday. Even though some of his writings have a mixed business / self-help flavor to it, I’ve met Ryan and I’ve seen him talk about Stoicism. He knows his Marcus Aurelius, and he understands the distinction between a philosophy of life and a bag of tricks: the former includes the latter, but the latter does not the former make. Still, we have also seen an avalanche of “Stoicism for business” and “Stoicism for success” articles, which not only have just a superficial relationship with Stoicism, but in fact constitute a perversion of it. Once again, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal and societal moral improvement. Personally, the focus is on understanding and practicing the dichotomy of control and deploying the four cardinal virtues in everything we do. Societally, things will improve — according to the Stoics — from the bottom up, so to speak: Zeno’s ideal Republic, essentially a peaceful anarchy of wise people, will be realized because we all, individually, do our part to make human society better.
None of this has anything to do with the dogged pursuit of externals, such as money, fame, or success. These are all classed by the Stoics among the preferred indifferents, i.e., things that may be pursued secondarily, so long as they don’t get in the way of practicing virtue. And speaking of practice, the Stoic “bag of tricks” was never meant to advance your business career or make your team win the SuperBowl. Indeed, the Stoics would have been appalled by such applications. The only point of the evening reflection, the exercises in self-deprivation, the premeditatio malorum, and so forth is to allow you to internalize the dichotomy of control and to make you a better person. Period. This is entirely analogous to Christianity: regardless of what you may think of the merits of the religion, being a Christian is about bettering yourself and helping others. It has nothing whatsoever to do with accumulating reaches and property, or any other measure of “success.”
“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses, I.1.5)
“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” (Meditations, VIII.33)
Dulcis in fundo (L., the sweetest for last, except that this is here meant entirely sarcastically), there is the apparent popularity of Stoicism in the men’s rights movement (MRM) and allied sub-movements (like incels, MGTOW, etc. — it’s hard to keep up with the burgeoning acronyms and abbreviations). This is one reason Jordan Peterson is so often talked about in Stoic circles, though the phenomenon is certainly not limited to him. The people I’m referring to love to point out that courage is a Stoic virtue, since they associate it with “manliness.” But they entirely forget that courage, in Stoicism, is a moral virtue, and it is impossible to decouple it from justice which, curiously, hardly goes mentioned in the same quarters. (Besides, the Stoics believed in the unity of virtue, so one should strive to be simultaneously courageous, just, temperate, and prudent.)
“Manly” Stoics of course also point out that “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which means man. While this is true, they also conveniently forget that vir was the translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence. And they entirely skip on the several quotes from the ancient Stoics — from Zeno to Seneca to Musonius Rufus — that very clearly talk about the intellectual equality between men and women. True, Greco-Roman society was certainly sexist, and so were some of the Stoics themselves, but the theory (and some of the practice) was way ahead of its time. And why on earth would we want to model 21st century behavior on the worst of what our forebears did and thought?
“I know what you will say, “You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.” Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XVI)
“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)
I am not the Pope of Stoicism. Thank Zeus we don’t have a Pope or anything like that. And of course I could be wrong, both in terms of my understanding of the history and of the philosophy of Stoicism. But at the very least all Stoic practitioners should seriously and thoughtfully engage in discussions of these issues, and honestly trying to do their best not just to further the philosophy itself, but to contribute to the welfare of the human polis and the ethical stewardship of the world in which we live.